In therapy, we talk a lot about the importance of ‘meeting the client where they are’; in other words, seeing them for who they are and what they’re dealing with at that time, rather than who or where we think they ‘should’ be. Little did I know I’d be using the same lesson in my relationship with the newest member of the family.
Just like the beginning of any new relationship, our first week with Valentino — an 18-month-old German Shepherd/husky cross dog — has had its ups and downs. We had found him on the website of a charity devoted to rescuing German Shepherds who had been abandoned or, for whatever reason, needed rehoming. The photos of him were stunning: cream and coffee-coloured fur, with hazel eyes and blond eyelashes. A very handsome boy. We were home-checked by the charity and given the go-ahead to meet him, and I have to say we were all smitten from the first moment. He bounded up to us with his five foster-mates, sniffing, licking and competing for attention. We took him for a walk, and any doubts we might have had about him were quickly forgotten.
Bringing him home to the south coast from rural West Sussex, we all had broad grins on our faces and a sense that we were a complete family again, following the death 3 months ago of our beloved dog Chester. We’d promised ourselves another dog ‘when the time is right’, and Valentino seemed like the right dog for us. We knew there’d be practical issues to deal with; Tino (we quickly shortened his name for convenience’s sake) is a big strong dog, and as a wheelchair user, I can’t take chances with a dog straining on the lead and pulling me into the road (which memorably happened once with Chester when he was about Tino’s age). We also couldn’t risk letting him off the lead until we were sure he’d bonded with us and would come back to us when we called — particularly important for me, as I can’t run after him!
With Chester, I’d used a head-collar designed to stop dogs pulling on the lead, and for him it had worked well. But Tino hated it; I felt cruel putting it on him, and not in control of him when we did go out. The plan that we’d so confidently made for me to take Tino for a walk on the seafront, safely controlled on the lead, had to be reviewed. Perhaps this was the first inkling that our love affair with him wasn’t going to be entirely plain sailing after all. And, in fact, why should it be? Tino is a different dog; he’s had a previous owner (of whom we know nothing) and then a spell in a foster family where he was able pretty much to do his own thing for several weeks, unlike Chester who had been alone with me since he was a tiny puppy.
It’s funny how the enormity of the responsibilities we take on don’t always sink in until the deed is done, the papers are signed and — in our case — the dog is curled up happily with his head on our feet whilst we recover from the muscle-straining effort of taking him for a walk. Our temporary solution to the problem of how to exercise him safely is for my husband to hold the lead while we walk round the park or across the Common, giving him as much freedom as the length of the extending lead will allow. Last night, as we sat exhausted on the sofa, my husband and I looked at each other and wondered whether adopting Tino had been one responsibility too far.
But then today, I’ve been having fun with him in the garden, and remembering why we decided to adopt him in the first place; it feels like rediscovering why we fell in love with him originally. So now that awareness is in place, it becomes a matter of working out practical solutions to each problem that comes up. The key, it seems to me, is to remember that this is a dog with ‘baggage’. Just like each human individual brings their own personal issues to new relationships, so do dogs — particularly rescue dogs like Tino, whose background is unknown. Who knows what experiences this dog went through before he was rescued by the charity and fostered out? On top of that, it’s all too easy for me to forget the stress and exhaustion and doubts I experienced when Chester was young, and only to remember the well-behaved and docile dog he became in his later years.
So in meeting Valentino where Valentino is rather than where we’d like him to be, I’ve started one to one sessions with a dog trainer, who gently reminds me not to expect too much too soon; Tino has only been with us for a week, and already has had so many new experiences, not least going down to the seafront yesterday and being spooked by the waves — they only had a calm pond at his foster family’s home in the countryside, not great big sea waves! “Give him time,” the trainer tells me, “and you’ll see him blossom”. Tino isn’t Chester; I knew that intellectually of course, but I’ve had to recognise that even on a practical level, the solutions that worked for one dog may not necessarily work for another. On an emotional level too, Tino has different needs than Chester did, because he — like all of us — is an individual and needs to be met for who he is and where he is.
In much the same way as beginning a new therapeutic relationship with a client, I feel like I’m stepping out on a new adventure with Tino — what will we find out about each other and how will each of us be changed by the experience?